America the sweaty, spendy and thrifty

Hi y’all (obligatory southern greeting). Time for an update on what’s been occurring in these here parts…

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My new besties

Without wanting to sound smug, my first week has comprised largely of lounging about, getting used to the bizarre new sensation of not having to rush anywhere… At once splendid and disconcerting. I’ve strolled leisurely to daily yoga classes, where the gloriously guileless instructor tells me to ‘show up for myself’ and ‘be present and accepting of my truth’ with the kind of wide-eyed earnestness that would be mistaken for sarcasm back in Britain. I’ve lounged by the apartment complex’s communal pool, never surpassing a lazy breast-stroke whenever the mood takes me to do any actual swimming. I’ve read and written and pondered and cooked yellow squash for dinner. Might as well say sod it and join the cast of the Real Housewives of Atlanta, would fit right in I’m sure… What a horrifying thought. Imagine the BOREDOM. Luxurious though it is, this little sojourn from Real Life must be, for me at least, entirely temporary.

 

Wandering between worlds. In other news, the temperature is sky-high, reaching around 32 most days (or 90°F according to local sources – celsius never caught on here, apparently), which necessitates darting between various air-conditioned interiors and spending as little time as possible outside in the merciless sunshine. Perhaps the climate is at least in part responsible for a marked contrast between inside and outside here in the south – one which I remember noticing in North Carolina, too. While walking through the neighbOrhood streets, or out alongside busier roads, I find it hard to shake an odd sense that I shouldn’t be there, somehow. There is practically no one around, and the humans I do come across are almost always seated behind the wheels of giant 4x4s (the human-to-car ratio being approx 1:1000 by my estimation). On the major roads, those who do venture out on foot are confronted with few pavements and convenient crossings, apparently this is not a city built for pedestrians. I also notice that fellow pedestrians are predominantly male POC. I smell social division.

Having picked my way across this strange No-Man’s Land in the blistering heat, I often continue my walk home through a nearby mall. A merciful wave of icy air greets me as I gaze up to the multiple floors of twinkling facades above immaculate displays of clothes, gadgets, cosmetics and products of every other description. These are intersperced with Starbucks, pretzel and macaroon stands, cupcake emporia (Sprinkles has even installed a ‘cupcake ATM’ into a side wall from which to withdraw sweet treats), artfully-placed indoor foliage and fountains, all of it stretching as far as the eye can see and populated with bag-laden shoppers, phone in one hand, grande iced green tea soya latte (or similar) in the other. Mostly white people too, incidentally. Such places and activities are not unique to here of course, but yet again, the US seems to have taken them to the extreme. For me, these malls are not so much shopping centres as entire villages, built to house the most STUFF possible, to provide the most superlative Shopping Experience to their visitors. Or at least, to act as a refuge from the sweltering nothingness outside. Without meaning to sound sanctimonious, feels like there’s a hell of nothingness inside these places, too.

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Sweet Home Alabama (had to, didn’t I?). Chan and I decided to leave Hotlanta (as the city’s inhabitants have inventively dubbed it) behind for a weekend visit to her native state of Alabama, or ‘Alabama the Beautiful’, as the state slogan proudly announces. My initial impressions found in favour of this slogan; as soon as we were off the interstate and despite the relentless southern heat, the landscape was verdant, seemingly winning a war against human habitation in places. We sped past timber bungalows overgrown with kudzu, many complete with American flags, porches with rocking chairs and those classic mail boxes on posts at the ends of the driveways as per every American movie you’ve ever seen… We arrived in Amanda’s hometown of Weaver, and spent a fab few days en famille, wading through the heavily accented, lilting southern English to discover a delightfully warm and welcoming group of people.

 

America The Thrifty. For all the polished new products being churned out for sale at the aforementioned malls, it seems that if there’s one thing many Americans love more than new stuff, it’s old stuff. As Chan and I left the highway and headed down more local east-Alabamian roads, Amanda began to point out several roadside establishments offering all manner of second-hand wares, from tumbledown cabins given over to the reselling of damaged canned goods (the ‘Dented Can Store’) to giant thrift stores set up in industrial-looking warehouses (‘Center of Hope’ – a Christian organisation which pops a helpful pamphlet on how not to go to hell into your shopping bag when you pay). Yard sale signs also abounded (Amanda informs me that these are much more common and frequent than our sporadic car booties). Best of all, a leaflet at the state border welcome centER announced the Unclaimed Baggage Center as one of Alabama’s top attractions – yep, a huge marketplace where you can bag yourself a bargain at some hapless holiday-maker’s expense! GENIUS.

My impresson of this apparent fondness for rooting out a bargain was typified by Chan’s delightfully giggly mother, whose house was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of every kind of object you can imagine, collected through decades of careful yard-sale-combing… dolls, kitchen utensils, snow-globes, chairs, screens, cookbooks, lamps, mini electric fans (“Ah just picked this one up – ain’t it PRECIOUS?”)… Mama Chan had it all. By the time we left Alabama, we had visited two different thrift stores (three if you include sifting through Mama Chan’s latest finds) and had been saddled up with enough cast-off canned groceries to last until about 2050, as well as fresh yellow squash and patty pan, another member of the marrow family typically grown in the south. Gawd bless Mama Chan.

Although, as my dear sage friend Ruth reflected on our recent video call, this often unnoticed yet flourishing thrift-store culture may simply be the underbelly of consumerist culture here in the US; people are programmed to want more and more stuff, and finding it at a fraction of its original cost (albeit sometimes not quite in its original condition) may simply be a more affordable outlet for consumerist compulsions. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly heartened to see that under the pristine surface of the sparkling malls, accessible perhaps only to the wealthy, lies a layer of spend-thrifts, make-doers and menders, sniffing out alternative ways of getting what they need/want through more sustainable means. As someone who engages in the buying of new clothes only under sufferance, I appreciate this. Consumerism remains at large, but consuming the already-consumed seems a good option to me for now.

Our final stop before returning across the border to Georgia was the DeSoto Caverns, a stunning, sprawling cave network with a colourful history as Native American hideout, small-scale gunpowder factory and illicit speak-easy during Prohibition. Blissfully cool down there too – I wore a light jumper and everything!

That’s all for now, poppets. More news from Hotlanta soon. If you’re reading from the UK: good luck with hosting the Supreme Moron for a few days – no doubt there are many over here that are glad of a break! I am following the protests from afar and am absolutely there in spirit. Leaving you with a few other pics from the week for your perusal 🙂 Off to do some more lazing about now.

Peace out fo now x x x x x x x x

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Atlanta by night

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Jiffy pop – stove popcorn!

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Hard at work popping the jiffy pop

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Roadtriiiiiip

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A British Phonebox in Lenox Park. Unsure why.

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Harder than it looked! Extra stuff to do outside DeSoto Caverns

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Waffle House. Southern institution. Glad I tried it. Might not again – greaSY.

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Back on the map: picking up the Trail States-side

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Why HOWDY friends!

After almost a year off the Trail, I am delighted to announce that I have once again hit the road and exchanged the quaint beauty of my native Britain (which I must point out has lately been treating its residents to an uncharacterstically lengthy spell of blue skies and sunshine) for the sprawling unknown of the Deep South. My bestest American lady Amanda chan is currently installed and gainfully employed here in Atlanta, following a glorious (and infuriatingly curtailed – thanks a BUNCH, UK immigration authorities) stint with me back in the UK. Atlanta is therefore where I’m currently parked up, and where I’ll be basing myself for the next six weeks of Deep Southern Discovery…

Atlanta: first impressions. I rolled down into Hartsfield Int’l a couple of hours later than planned yesterday, courtesy of a faulty plane engine at JFK. Initial sensations were (in order):

  1. Elation at clapping eyes on wee Chan’s face after 3 months of separation
  2. Sweatiness as a sheet of humidity promptly smeared itself over me the moment we exited the terminal
  3. The impression that I had shrunk to about three-quarters my usual size.  Several US cities have had this effect upon me in the past due to the sheer scale of them and all that they contain, from the tank-like cars to the six-lane highways and neck-craning skycrapers. No one does supersize like the USA, after all.
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My crap photography doesn’t give much of a sense of scale, but essentially it all seemed BIG

July 4. I had cunningly (accidentally) booked a flight arriving on Independence Day, so once back at Channy’s apartment, we set about deciding whether or not we’d venture into town for the celebrations. We soon came to the conclusion that, given my pronounced sleepiness and the horizon of threatening storm clouds visible out the window, the event would best be marked by watching any rain-surviving firework displays on the telly and ordering takeout. Before long, we were making our way through a selection of dishes from a local Chinese, which arrived in an array of those little foldy boxes that always remind me of Miranda from Sex And The City. What could be more appropriate fare for America’s birthday than a sizeable serving of greasy, re-interpreted foreign cuisine, after all!?

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#seriouspatriots

As we chomped, the sparkle and crackle of fireworks and a recent rock version of the Star-Spangled Banner emanated from the TV, while the studio audience frantically waved their own star-spangled banners, their wide-eyed, white-toothed faces alight with patriotism. I must admit that I never fail to find such fervent scenes somewhat bizarre, I myself feeling little allegiance to any arbitrarily demarcated territory staked out by old warlords and conquistadors years before my time…  And being raised in a place in which gushy public sentiment is often met with raised eyebrows and mistrustful tight lips doesn’t help, I’m sure! I chuckled at the thought of a similar scene in the UK. Just wouldn’t happen, would it? I suppose you can only really go in for such overt national pride when you’re celebrating freedom from someone else… or if there’s a royal wedding on. Yes I retract previous statement actually – Brits do go bonkers for the royals in much the same way, don’t they? And arguably, I probably shouldn’t sweep aside the wartime patriotism that I (thankfully) have never experienced, so there is that… But anyway, I digress. These particular patriots appeared to be having a jolly old time of it, despite having the contents of the aforementioned rainclouds periodically dumped on them. All power to ’em.

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The flags, anthems and nationalistic jubilation also drew my mind inevitably towards the leader of this pronouncedly proud nation, and to the fact that this is my first visit to Trump’s America (my last stay being back in 2015 when Obama still held the reins). I wondered how many of that audience had sent Trump to the top, how many of them thought he really could make America great again, and how many of them still do. Aligning my impressions of the atmosphere in these red southern states to those I experienced on the liberal west coast is likely impossible and no doubt unhelpful. But over the next six weeks, I am keen to take the pulse here in the heart of Trump territory, and to find out whether the people of these parts feel things are a-changing, for better or for worse…

That’s all for now, kiddos. Enjoy the updates as and when you fancy popping over to the Trail for a browse/whenever I manage to churn them out! More soon.

It’s good to be back. Big love.

Trina x x x x x

Lotus Pocus and other stories

Happy Sunday everyone!

Blog update time again. This one comes to you from the same tatami table whence the previous post emerged. Between then and now, I think my heart rate has dropped by about half as I have fallen deeper and deeper into step with countryside languor. That said, I’d say my usual writing output has increased at least five-fold and, most pleasingly, my Japanese language knowledge is now permitting me to discuss my friends, family and future plans in quite some detail. Amazing what can happen in a week eh!

Basically, I’ve spent the week having lots of lovely experiences then coming back here and writing about them in exchange for food and a futon. Suited me down to the ground, as you can imagine! And before I leave this bucolic idyll tomorrow, I thought I’d share with you a handful of the week’s scribblings (click on the titles below), which will eventually feature on the family’s nascent tourism business website. Feel free to peruse at your leisure 🙂

Discovering Ottobatake

 

Shodō 101: a brush with calligraphy

 

When is a temple not a temple? When it’s a shrine.

 

Ottobatake okonomiyaki

 

Lotus Pocus

 

Off to pack now poppets. Updates from the road soon! Leaving you with the news that Japan has reached new levels of bonkers with its ice cream flavours – see below. Generally quite disturbed.

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Flavours left to right: oyster, clam, miso-ramen, abalone (sea snail)

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Flavours left to right: burdock root, Sendai beef, beef tongue

Get your hypothetical taste buds around that lot! Try not to barf.

Love love love x x x x x

 

From Hokkaido to Tohoku: a week of spectacular scenery, fabulous flavours and sensational signage

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Greetings from muggy Miyagi!

After a week of hurtling around Hokkaido and northern Honshu, I have screeched to a halt and am adjusting to a rather different state of affairs here in the Tohoku countryside. The stream that trickles alongside Ottobakate House and an orchestra of hissing cicadas are forming the bass line for the laziest of soundscapes. Even the torrential rain that drums down onto the roof appears to be doing so rather unhurriedly.

I’ll say no more about my current location for now, as I feel it deserves a much more detailed rendering than is possible in a post which could already end up being pretty chocca if I’m not careful… all I will say for now is that I am kicking back in a very rural, very traditional Japanese pad, the minimalist furnishings and fascinating inhabitants of which I am finding an utter delight. Teaser photos below.

 

 

Let’s wind back the clock to this time last week, which saw Amanda-chan and I exchange the smouldering heat of Tokyo for the thoroughly welcome freshness of The North…

Sapporo. From the moment the plane’s wheels grazed the runway, we agreed that Hokkaido felt different. I watched the new landscape whizz by through the window of the airport shuttle bus; the scrubby, rain-starved flora of greater Tokyo had been replaced by verdant meadows lined by swelling spruces, and everything looked decidedly well-rained-on. That said, the sky was a promising forget-me-not blue, and the air maintained a crispness long since dampened into non-existence further south. By dusk, we were knocking on the door of our Sapporo host, a lady named Akiyo whose pad has definitely secured itself a high ranking on the quirky accommodation roll of honour… The myriad emails I had received containing all manner of annotated diagrams and Youtube links with which to locate the place might have been some indication of what we would find within… every inch of the place had been plastered with explanatory notes about how to operate the house’s every fixture. “How to open milk carton” next to the breakfast things was a particular highlight. More gems below – incredibly sweet and thoughtful, if not altogether useful.

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Furano and Biei. Now well-versed in operating the toilet, cranking up the air-con and switching on the hairdryer, we rocked up to Sapporo Station early the next day for a full schedule of northern tourism. We jumped aboard a bus along with a crew of predominantly Chinese and Japanese sightseers, and were soon being driven 20535917_10159116852980300_1615374795_oeastwards up and down the undulations of Furano. It was entirely idyllic, and recalled strongly the twinkling summer days with which England occasionally blesses its inhabitants: orderly, patchwork fields of corn and wildflowers bobbing in the breeze… The road through this most pleasant landscape led to far less familiar sights, however. Before long, we were off-loaded at a little wooded area concealing a lake so eerily blue that even the most filter-obsessed Instagrammers would have felt no need to enhance their snaps. The inventively named Aoiike (Blue Lake) owes its unearthly hue to a high concentration of minerals dissolved in the water, and put me in mind of the copper sulphate crystals I remember growing as a child. Quite stunning.

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Farm Tomita a.k.a. Lavender Central was next on the itinerary. Alongside the sweeping carpets of purple, we discovered multi-coloured strips of white baby’s breath, red poppies, pink garden catch-flies and orange California poppies. We spent a good while attempting to capture these striking colour combos in photo form, pausing to slurp lavender-flavoured ice cream (MAKE THIS A THING, UK) and to note that signage explaining the history/reason behind the place’s existence was nowhere to be found. I reflected that there may well have been some information in Japanese lurking somewhere on the plot, which my brain had simply dismissed as an auto-response to non-comprehension. But the pronounced lack of info versus the abundance of lavender-scented/flavoured/shaped products on sale, plus the hoards of photo-takers (ourselves included), did seem to indicate an unabashed doing-away with the pretence that anyone actually wants to know facts any more, and that a much more commercial, image-based brand of tourism is here to stay…

 

Onuma and Hakodate. We made our way southward the following day after an all-too-brief mooch around Sapporo itself – a clean, spacious city to which I really must devote much more time at a later date! The Hakuto Express snaked its way along the coast, bringing us down to Onuma, which I was keen to visit on account of its celebrated “QUASI-national park” (quite how a park can be quasi-national remains something of a mystery to me, but there we go..). There was nothing quasi about the beauty of the place at least; we ditched our backpacks in a station locker, rented a couple of bikes from a nearby store and spent a blissful couple of hours pedalling around the lakeside, dismounting every so often to wander up to a particular beauty spot or lakeside shrine. Back near the bike rental, there was time to snarf a squid ink-flavoured ice cream (surprisingly not gross at all, despite its unpromising appearance) before jumping aboard a cutesy one-carriage local train down to our next stop: Hakodate.

 

If there is one place in all the world in which to take a sneaky break from veganism, it had to be Hakodate. This curiously higgledy-piggledy port town is so crammed full of fresh, locally-caught seafood that resistance was, for me at least, completely futile. Within an hour or so of arriving, we were tucking into grilled mackerel and crab soup,  followed the next day by a market-place lunch of scallops served in their shells. The extensive fish market comprised hundreds of stalls selling seafood of every description, from bright orange, brain-like sea pineapple to giant slabs of monstrous-looking monkfish. Watching visitors catch their own squid from a large tank in the centre was at once traumatic and hilarious, as each creature thrashed about on the end of its captor’s rod, squirting onlookers with jets of water before being carried off by the proprietor and returned to the captor minutes later, sliced up on a plate with a side-dish of soy sauce.

 

By nightfall, we had picked our way around various impressive mansions on the other side of town, and Amanda had struck gastronomic gold yet again by stumbling upon “the Second Most Delicious Melonpan in the World”. Now how’s THAT for smart advertising. Another classic example of the Japanese obsession with weird food combos, melonpan is a heated, melon-flavoured roll with a generous dollop of soft scoop sandwiched in the middle. What the MOST Delicious Melonpan in the World must be like I can only imagine…

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Oma to Osorezan. 9:30 next morning saw us watching Hakodate disappear into the distance from the deck of a ferry bound for Honshu. I was delighted to discover that we had no ‘seats’ as such, but rather a large space to lie about in (shoes off, of course!), 20170726_091527.jpgrather like a child’s play area. Well-rested after a couple of hours in the play pen, we disembarked at the remote town of Oma and boarded a local bus that ran us alongside the glistening sea through a string of tiny fishing villages. We arrived in the small town of Mutsu, where we befriended a crinkly-eyed Swiss lady with irises the colour of the Blue Lake and who, it turned out, was also heading to Osorezan: the mountain at the end of the world.

Osorezan is one of those places that has to be ‘felt’ to be understood. The mountain plays host to the 1000-year-old Bodaiji Temple, which itself sits alongside a lake so still and other-worldly that it’s easy to imagine why some Buddhists consider it to be the entrance to the afterlife, and why it is often likened to the River Styx of Greek Mythology. We spent a good few ours roaming the desolate, volcanic landscape, getting acquainted with the numerous Buddhas that hold vigil over the mountainside, breathing in the sulphurous air and imagining the lost souls gliding to their rest across the lake…

 

Wow this is shaping up to be a long’un eh! Such a lot to cram into this post, but I’ll stop here and let my photos do the rest of the talking… News of shenanigans in rural Tohoku on their way very soon!

Stay happy and healthy, one and all! BIG love.

K x x x x x

 

…and one final gem for you. Pay particular attention, if you will, to the bottom right-hand corner.

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“If you lose balance you are gonna fall down on shit.”

YOU’RE WELCOME.

Otsukare! Highlights great and small

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Another sultry, sticky summer evening in Tokyo, and I have just returned from a final amble along the river that runs beside my soon-to-be-vacated apartment. The key motive was to get some distance between myself and the large piles of half-sorted papers, bin bags of clothes and chaotic nest of extraneous plugs and leads that constitute my possessions. Procrastination was not the only achievement, however. The glimmering tower block reflections, combined with the lazy buzz of the cicadas and faint breeze whispering through the waterside rushes, seemed to beckon my brain towards some fruitful pondering, and consequently maybe some decent blog fodder…

As I plodded along, it occurred to me that the past weeks’ Blog Block may have been due to my desire to impose some kind of narrative on recent events, to bind key moments neatly together under some overarching theme in order to reveal something profound about Japanese society. But the truth is that life is rarely so obligingly cohesive, especially not of late. Or perhaps my brain is just failing to identify any central connections at the moment. Either way, for this post I have decided simply to compile a list of recent highs: some experience-defining, some seemingly unremarkable. But all crucial contributors to my current elation at being alive and at large in Japan!

 

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Highlight #1: Last day of term. There were photos. There were gifts galore. There were tears. There was a ‘pin the toupée on Donald Trump’ game. There was even a spot of karaoke (turns out one student knows ALL the words to ‘My Sharona’, and does some spectacular air guitar work to boot). There was Marmite tasting (see varying reactions below -SUCH FUN). And there were enough sugary snacks to keep the students buzzing all the way through to next semester. But most importantly, there was a group of exceptional students, of whom I am immensely proud and whose eager wee faces I will miss so very much.

For almost a year now, I have been bewildered by their silences, tickled by their anecdotes, awed by their diligence and humbled by their dedication. And mostly, I have been deeply moved by their determination to progress, to smash through the insecurities that I know their previous uncommunicative language learning has created. They have battled the urge to scurry back to the familiar comfort of their textbooks, and have instead bravely raised their heads, opened their mouths and looked me in the eye. And in so doing, they have reached out beyond the borders of their lives and dared to embrace otherness, which for me represents not only an incredible accomplishment on their part, but an inspiring example to anyone striving for a future of tolerance and intercultural understanding. What sparkly, wonderful people.

In this spirit and true to form, I decided to close proceedings with a quick speech delivered in my very best Japanese (Mayu prepped me magnificently). Apart from pointing out that instead of saying samishii (miss you) I managed to come out with sashimi (raw fish), students assured me it was a triumph. More than happy with that!

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Highlight #2: My local Maruetsu had been consistently selling the juiciest Jazz apples for the past week, for a very reasonable 94 yen. This pleases me immensely, as you can imagine.

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Highlight #3: A return to Yasukuni. Perhaps ‘highlight’ is the wrong word for this one, but it certainly needs mention nonetheless. I was eager to get back to this central Tokyo shrine, which I have visited many times, but which now holds renewed significance for me, in light of having just finished Richard Flanagan’s superb novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Yasukuni stands in commemoration of those who gave their lives in defence of the Japanese Empire. The shrine’s honours list, I now know, includes names of over a thousand war criminals. What’s more, while the Burmese railway locomotive shown below is displayed at Yasukuni as a symbol of Japanese might, spirit and will, there is no mention of the many thousands of POWs who were enslaved in the Siamese jungle and tortured into constructing the railway in some of the most appalling conditions conceivable. Some recognition of this horrific human sacrifice wouldn’t go amiss at the exhibition, I feel…

 

Highlight #4: Veggie fest and lantern lighting. Mayu and I spent a blissful (if stonkingly hot) few hours in Ueno Park munching on vegan kebab and burger, and slurping down a magnificent bean and soya milk kakigori (flavoured shaved ice in a cup). Tokyo is waking up to a glorious new veggie future, I tell thee!

Post eco grub, we wandered across to the lake which was burgeoning with lily pads so large they would have towered over our heads had we not been standing on a raised platform. We watched the watery smear of a sun melt into the horizon behind the skyscrapers, talking of hopes, dreams, and far-off places. As the darkness gathered around us, a group of chanting monks took to the water in rowboats laden with thousands of little box lanterns, each a dedication to someone who has passed away. As they set the golden boxes a-bobbing on the water, the effect was one of magical serenity – at least until a few wisps of evening breeze seemingly proved too much for the tealights within, and snuffed them out. Lovely while they lasted.

 

Highlight #5: I found a pair of Hello Kitty flipflops for 54 yen in a bargain bin. I was in the market after my Nicaraguan ones finally bit the dust one evening last week, and what with the smashing cheesiness of the design and the comfort they afford me, this purchase has made its way into my current list of life wins.20205860_10159053468265300_1603245152_o.jpg

 

Must be off now, dear reader – alas, my flat is still resembling the very bargain bin which coughed up the new flipflops, and I’ve got to be out of here by tomorrow… GAH. So much to do. So many emotions slooshing round my brain, too – currently a disorienting mix of wistfulness for the past few months and anticipation for imminent adventures in the north… keep a look out for a Hokkaido update very soon!

Extra highlights from the week recorded below through photos – have a gander at your leisure 🙂

Happy Friday, lovely people! Otsukaresama deshita, one and all 😀

 

 

 

Ii shashin ne! Four weeks in pics and a vid

Guess who’s back…

 

Baseball (of which I understood very little but which I thoroughly enjoyed). I put this down to the rousing atmosphere, excellent company and the 9% Chu-Hi drinks, rather than to the game itself…

 

Downtown explorations: Kagurazaka and Yanaka. Courtesy of my good friend Ichiro, with the fabulous Junko, Kumi, Mari and Ms Alabama in attendance.

 

Enoshima island mooch, beach time and Tanabata festival at Hiratsuka… in a day. Boy did Amanda, Mayu and I cram it in!

 

There you have it, folks. Apologies for lack of deeper cultural observations/engaging prose; I hope the selection of photos at least brings you some amusement until the next update (which I am determined will NOT take so long to appear!)

More love than I can shake a stick at. Thanks for bearing with me 😉 x x x x x

Of hauntings and hydrangeas

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Good evening, one and all!

It’s been an intense old week, wouldn’t you say? The political action last Thursday had me feverishly refreshing the Guardian live results page throughout the day – bulletins which I dutifully delivered to my mildly amused students before every class (making them have a May-vs-Corbyn debate the previous lesson had hopefully provided them with enough insight and interest to at least be able to humour me). For fear of stepping aboard a rant train that I may not be able to alight for some time, I shan’t address the subject further here, but will confine my election reaction to a single syllable: HA.

parental-advisory_custom-d61ea6192ebc478d3a7ff147dbbe3e884ebcb5ac-s900-c85Classes also hit a high note on the intensity stave, with discussions of male vs. female on-screen nudity and Miley Cyrus’ pot-fuelled publicity stunts in a series of lessons on censorship (“Katrina, what is joint?”). The following lesson was dedicated to rumour-spreading role-plays, during which one linguistically adventurous lad jubilantly announced his suspicion that I was a certain type of promiscuous woman, the term for which begins with ‘s’ and rhymes with ‘nut’. I quickly arranged my face into what I hoped was cool nonchalance, and gently advised him of the potency of the word and the inadvisability of its usage, meeting his bashful apologies with assurances that I wasn’t remotely offended, and more relieved that he’d had the sense to take this exciting acquisition (courtesy of Skins, apparently) out for an initial spin in the cushion-padded testing ground of my classroom, and not in the more unforgiving wider world.

A saner person might have taken the weekend to unwind from a 45-hour week of such concentrated controversy. But plans were in place and weekends are precious, so at 4.30 on Saturday morning Amanda and I folded away our grown-up selves along with our work suits, and bounded out to the foot of Mt Fuji, where Japan’s (self-proclaimed) most famous theme park awaited us…

 

Fuji Q. I am pleased to report that I did exactly as I had intended, and spent about eight hours running from ride to gravity-defying ride, high as a kite on E-numbers and adrenaline, laughing inanely at every jolt, whoosh and lurch. I also put some time aside to get the poo scared out of me at Japan’s (also self-proclaimed) scariest haunted house: 30 minutes of unadulterated terror during which I screamed and swore fluently, and probably cut off the circulation in the imperturbable Amanda’s arm due to my supreme wussiness. The place is done out like a post-apocalyptic hospital, so we were pounced on by a delightful cast of zombie surgeons in blood-spattered gowns and semi-dismembered, un-dead patients, made all the more menacing by sporadic bangs, disembodied screeches and flickering overhead bar lights. Bloody awful. Amanda’s refusal to so much as flinch at anything we encountered, plus the prospect of having to report back to the students on Monday that I’d wimped out, got me through the ordeal. Glad I did it. No desire to do it again. The whole pleasure-in-fear thing still very much a mystery.

 

Hie jinja and Hakusan. Taking intensity levels down a notch on Sunday, Mayu and I spent several sublime hours wandering around Hie Jinja in Akasaka, babbling happily about anything and everything while bearing witness to the Chigo Gyoretsu – a delightful procession of kiddies done up in traditional Heian-period garb, accompanied by traditional musicians and dancers to have health and happiness bestowed upon them by the Shinto gods.

Mayu’s excellent translation of the ceremony information informs me that the coloured dots painted on the kids’ faces symbolise their divine status on this special day, although some seemed rather too young to appreciate the magnitude of their office…

 

We drifted on to the other side of the shrine, where a kendo tournament was underway. I had never seen a kendo dual before; if I had, I might have been prepared for the moment when the two Nazgûl-esque participants broke their solemn circling by raising their swords and launching themselves at one another, the change in pace announced by a series of bizarre squawking cries. Successfully resisted urge to burst out laughing, although only just.

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19105254_1375694402512346_2084514890_oHakusan hydrangeas. These stunners really are pulling out all the stops at the moment, exploding all over the city in a fit of deep blues, pinks and purples. Mayu and I continued our Sunday saunter by heading to hydrangea HQ at Hakusan, where a huge flower festival was in full swing. One of the many aspects of Japanese cultural life with which I have fallen deeply in love is the role of nature as the heart of the celebration, rather than as some kind of secondary symbol or bi-product (think of our holly at Christmas or roses on Valentine’s Day). I’m not saying that such appropriation isn’t also in evidence here, and cherry blossoms, maple leaves and hydrangeas alike have unquestionably been added to Japan’s consumerist arsenal. Nevertheless, there is something extraordinarily pleasing about the fact that people here turn out in their thousands for the primary pleasure of admiring 19095937_1375694649178988_2031878612_oflowers. It’s as though, despite the capitalist crap that’s been heaped on top, on some level Japanese society still understands that nature does not have to have man-made symbolism impressed upon it in order to have value. I may be sentimentalising the subject somewhat; it is true that such natural beauty is being consumed more than ever by the relentless jaws of Instagram and Facebook. But uncomplicated admiration is still clinging on in there somewhere. Long may it continue!

Have a gander at some snaps while I brew up the next update – with an exploration of Kagurazaka and a bit of firefly watching on the cards, this weekend is looking like solid blog-fodder already 😉

Take care lovely, lovely people. More soon! X x x x x x x